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As Merlin Mann once said,

There are no atheists in foxholes and firmware updates.

Okay, scratch the firmware part, but you see the core sentiment expressed quite commonly. I've never fully understood why believers in God see this as such a great argument, as I can see the opposite scenario as being true to. If I were squatting in a foxhole being shot at and I've just put my hand in a pile of goo that used to be my best friend's face, the belief that there's a kind and loving creator would not make a lot of sense to me.

So my question is, has there been any research done on whether stressful/life-threatening situations make people more (or less) religious?

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I don't know of any firm research since it would be difficult to gather statistics, but on the James Randi forum we have had a subforum for atheists in the military for some time. As well, the Richard Dawkins forum had an "atheists in foxholes" section that was well populated. As for myself, I'm an atheist of long standing who's also been in police work for 40+ years. I've been in some hairy situations, and have never felt the need to call for assistance from some deity. (I'm more inclined to resort to using the name in vain...) –  M. Werner Apr 24 '11 at 18:59
Lee, that's the "we're all born as atheists" argument. Religion does seem to be a taught (or indoctrinated) subject. –  Larian LeQuella Apr 24 '11 at 21:22
@Larian - religion is obviously a taught subject - just like any cultural construct. But human brains seem to present ideal ground for that specific memetic structure to easily take hold. –  DVK Apr 25 '11 at 0:07
Very true DVK. Evolutionarily, our brains have been conditioned to accept anything an authority figure imparts to us. Also, our pattern recognition is predisposed to accepting patterns, even where there may be none. –  Larian LeQuella Apr 25 '11 at 0:09
One additional question. Even if you accept the premise, that extreme danger leads people to God, what does that prove? Only this: if they're scared enough, people will believe anything. How is that somehow a validation of religion? –  Daniel Roseman Apr 26 '11 at 20:54
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4 Answers

Ask Pat Tillman. There is an entire Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers too. And then there is me (although I wasn't ever in a foxhole, I did my combat from 30,000 feet).

The saying comes from a misconception or personal projection that great stress will cause people to retreat to something comfortable. I can personally state that in combat situations, any "thought of deities" would have resulted in me dying as opposed to actually doing the job at hand.

Austin Cline who writes numerous essays on this at about.com says a few things about this

If it isn't true that there are no atheists in foxholes and that many theists leave their foxholes as atheists, why does the above myth persist? It certainly can't be employed as an argument against atheism — even if it were true, that would not mean that atheism is unreasonable or theism valid. To suggest otherwise would be little more than an ad hominem fallacy.

Is the claim that there are no atheists in foxholes meant to imply that atheists aren't "really" nonbelievers and actually harbor a secret belief in God? Perhaps, but it is a false implication and can't be taken seriously. Is it meant to imply that atheism is inherently "weak" while theism represents "strength?" Once again, that may be the case — but it would also be a false implication.

Regardless of the actual reasons for any particular theist to claim that there are no atheists in foxholes, it simply isn't true and should be rejected before the discussion goes any further.

I did find this paper (PDF) that has this as an abstract:

Recent research has focused on motivational bases of political ideology. It is plausible that similar factors may drive the formation of religious ideology. Though explanations of the existence of religious beliefs in terms of their satisfaction of psychological needs date back centuries, limited empirical research exists linking motivated reasoning to religious belief. I thoroughly review existing research on the role of motivation in the formation of religious belief systems, specifically research related to the relationship between fear of death and afterlife belief. Then I present the results of two original, experimental studies investigating the hypothesis that fear of death leads to greater religious belief. In Study 1, participants who were asked to write short essays about death reported greater belief in an afterlife than did participants who wrote essays on a neutral topic. Study 2 replicated this finding and also showed that increased fear of death leads to greater belief in God. The results of the studies suggest that a more parsimonious motivated reasoning account may explain the relationship between fear of death and afterlife belief better than one based on Terror Management Theory. Taken together, findings support the notion that some religious beliefs can be usefully explained in motivational terms.

That said, it does not validate the saying per se, however does show that some may be motivated by fear of death. Hopefully that is more in line with what you are looking for.

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What strikes me about this whole debate is I don't seem to see too many people standing on the side of it, as I do. I bounced from one extreme to the other, then off to the side, now regarding religion as myth, but there's nothing wrong with that. My sister once said, when her daughter was very ill, "I don't know what's true, but I know what I like to hear." –  Mike Dunlavey Apr 25 '11 at 1:12
As an atheist, I have summarized the whole debate on my blog: larianlequella.blogspot.com/2010/12/… I figure that a person's beliefs are their own, and they are entitled to it. It's just when someone insists on making an issue of it that things get "tense" –  Larian LeQuella Apr 25 '11 at 2:56
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The America’s Military Population report (p. 25) gives the following statistics on religion:

                  Military  20-39  18+
Protestant             35%   45%   53%
Catholic/Orthodox      22%   26%   25%
Other Christian        11%    3%    2%
Atheist/no religion    21%   19%   14%
Jewish                 --     1%    2%
Muslim                 --     1%    1%
Buddhist/Hindu         --     2%    1%
Other/unknown/refused  11%    3%    2%
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This doesn't add to much information - being in the military doesn't mean being "in the foxhole" - there are many non combat positions, or people in combat position that didn't find them self in such situations. –  Ophir Yoktan Apr 26 '11 at 18:04
Ophir, the cite linked says 21% of the military either has no religion or is atheist. Are you with a straight face suggesting that all 21% are in non-combat arms? Do you have any evidence for this fantastic claim? For reference, according to James Dunnigan, about 25% of troops can expect to see combat: strategypage.com/militaryforums/478-2068.aspx –  FlyingSquidwithGoggles May 11 '11 at 20:56
I'm atheist, and I have seen combat. That's one datapoint to show atheists in foxholes are a myth. And there are many, many more that I personally know as well as documented in other places such as MAAF etc. –  Larian LeQuella May 25 '11 at 11:46
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Penn Jillette argues in this Authors@Google talk that there can be nothing but atheists in foxholes. Because if you truly believed in an all-loving, protective god who had predetermined the moment of your demise, you would have no problem walking through a hail of bullets, knowing that he would protect you. The fact that you are still sheltering in your foxhole proves you are an atheist.

Apologies for the poor paraphrasing of Penn's much more eloquently presented argument.

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Unfortunately Penn's argument is very weak as it's based on a specific model of god that may or may not represent an individual's model. –  Brian Knoblauch Jan 25 '12 at 21:04
The marines I know are of this exact opinion: in a foxhole you need to rely on yourself- anything else will get you killed. Survival of the most sensible! –  Rory Alsop Jan 29 '12 at 13:21
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Like many other "rules" this is of course not true as a general rule - there are many people who stopped believing in such conditions, and others that indeed started believing.

But regarding the last part of your question:

"the belief that there's a kind and loving creator would not make a lot of sense to me."

For different people and in different occasions god means different things. and believing in god doesn't mean for everybody that the world should be a "fair place" or that god should protect them. For some, believing in god gives a meaning and purpose to life even in those hard situation that other people will consider that god has left them, or that there is no god

see for example Man's Search for Meaning about the psychology of people in the Holocaust (although it doesn't deal specifically with religion or belief in god)

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